Oilers center Mark Stepnoski hasn't earned five consecutive Pro Bowl selections by steamrolling mammoth defenders. As the smallest starting offensive lineman in the NFL, the 6'2", 269-pound Stepnoski relies on technique instead of power when facing defenders, who can outweigh him by 50 or 60 pounds. On Sunday in Tempe, Ariz., Stepnoski spent some of his day going against Eric Swann, the Cardinals' 6'5", 313-pound Pro Bowl tackle. Stepnoski helped pave the way for Eddie George to run for 71 yards, and the Oilers scored their most points since 1995 in a 41-14 win. Here Stepnoski explains the techniques he uses against one of the league's best interior linemen.
" Swann is special because he's got all the tools a guy needs to be a very good tackle. He's strong and quick. A lot of guys are one or the other, but he's both, so you have to consider that on every play.
"You can watch most guys on film and figure out how to approach them. But Swann doesn't have a signature move, like the way Reggie White uses his arm as a club to knock a lineman out of the way. Swann's game is built on power. He tries to shove you around. Against him you have to do the basics but do them a lot better than usual: You have to get your hands inside his arms before he does the same to you, stay lower than him and move your feet. By keeping your hands inside, you get control of him.
"You know right away whether you've blown it with Swann. If you let him rush right into you and you don't have your hands inside, then he's going to have control and you're going to be moving backward. From there he'll continue to bull-rush you or just go to one side of you or the other.
"I shake my head when I see how some guys try to block him. You have to be the aggressor because he will overwhelm you with his power. Sometimes you see a guy backing up when he's going to pass-block Swann. You can't do that, because you're giving him a head start. You have to hold your ground. Once you start going backward, you'll have a hard time recovering.
"Our basic running plays are handoffs to Eddie to either the strong side or the weak side. We'll run these against anyone because we think we're good at them. Some defensive guys try to blow the gaps against these runs. But Swann tries to tie up blockers to free the linebackers to make tackles. Usually I can tell how a defender plans to attack by studying his alignment on film. Most guys have tendencies you can bank on, but Swann doesn't give anything away. He's good at covering up.
"Nowadays it seems like every team has a great player like Swann on the defensive line. Everyone I play against is bigger than me. The only way I can get by is with technique."